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CNEWA Connections: The Extraordinary Meaning of Ordinary Time

The church observed the Baptism of Jesus on 10 January and, on the following day, Ordinary Time began in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. “Ordinary Time” is a rather pedestrian and perhaps unfortunate term to refer to those periods outside of Lent and Easter (including Pentecost), Advent and Christmas. In fact, most Sundays during the year are “Ordinary.”

Is “ordinary” necessarily the best description for most of our time?

To understand this approach, it helps to understand Christianity’s long, ambiguous and, at times, fateful relationship with the material world. This includes space, time, and particularly the flesh. Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled more or less successfully with Docetism, a doctrine that denied the true and full humanity of Christ, and Manichaeism, a religious movement that considered all matter, including the flesh, evil.

To some extent, the ambiguity can be traced back to the New Testament, where the Greek word sarx is translated “flesh.” The word appears 151 times in the entire New Testament. It appears 23 times in the Gospels — six times in reference to the Eucharist in John 6 — and 81 times in the letters of Paul.

Often contrasting sarx, “flesh, fleshly,” and pneuma, “spirit, spiritual,” the overwhelming number of references to flesh in Paul’s letters is negative. This has had a powerful influence — especially on Western Christianity — since two of the most important theologians in the West, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, were profoundly influenced by Paul.

However, Paul’s attitude toward flesh does not exhaust the New Testament witness. A few times in the Gospel, flesh is used to describe the “one flesh” of the first couple in Eden (Gen 2:24); sometimes it refers to all material creation (Mt 24:22; Jn 17:2), and often to the Eucharist.

Clearly the Gospels do not share Paul’s negative attitude toward this notion of flesh. Nowhere is this clearer than in John 1:14, where the mystery of salvation is put at its most succinct: “And the Word became flesh.” Note that John does not say “became human” or “became a man” (much less a male human). He uses sarx, “flesh.” Interestingly and significantly, in Luke 24:39 the Risen Christ says to the disciples: “Touch me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh (sarx) and bones as you see that I have.”

“The term ‘Ordinary Time’ is something of an oxymoron. If ‘ordinary’ means ‘day-to-day, uninteresting, insignificant,’ nothing could be further from the truth.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

It is this attitude toward the flesh, this deep insight into the Incarnation, that has characterized much of Christianity — perhaps unnoticed — since the beginning. An underlying principle has been that Christ became like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15); whatever Christ took on in the Incarnation, that is, everything but sin, was touched by grace and was saved.

This attitude toward the flesh, the material world, has had a profound impact on Christian belief and practice. From the very beginning, material things were signs and instruments of God’s saving power: the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oil of anointing, the laying on of hands and, yes, marriage itself. Time itself was transformed in the observance of the first day of the week as the new sabbath. The different liturgical observances during the year were constructed to highlight the sacredness of time.

While the distinction between the sacred and the secular is often necessary and helpful, for the Christian nothing that is truly human — except sin, of which there seems to be more than enough — is untouched by God’s grace.

With that in mind, we can see that the term “Ordinary Time” is something of an oxymoron. If “ordinary” means “day-to-day, uninteresting, insignificant,” nothing could be further from the truth. If we believe “the Word became flesh,” another way of saying it is the Word became one of us — normal, everyday, unspectacular and yet, at the same time, incredibly transformative. In one sense, the time we call “ordinary” is precisely that. On the other hand, “ordinary” time could also describe the first 30 years of Jesus’ life. Then, as now, “ordinary” time is the arena of salvation. It is permeated and totally transformed by grace.

In the Eastern churches, one often reads that the Word of God became human so that we humans (and all that involves) can become, in a sense, divine. As John the Baptist described the coming ministry of Jesus (cf. Lk 3:6) even in “ordinary” time, “all flesh (sarx) shall see the salvation of our God.”

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